By David Yarger
In front of the home crowd, the Clarence Red Devils defeated the Niagara-Wheatfield Falcons 76-64 in the first round of the class AA sectional playoffs on Wednesday.
The loss ends a rocky season for the coach Erik O'Bryan's bunch, as they finished with seven straight losses to finish 5-16.
O'Bryan was visibly upset after the loss.
"The last couple weeks have been real tough," he said. "It's tough on all of us. You know, we kind of really let it all out there. We had a heart-to-heart after the Kenmore West loss, because we weren't even trying anymore. The last five days have been really good; a lot of energy."
O'Bryan noted the youth on his team - starters include an eighth-grader, two sophomores and a junior - were overpowered by the strength and experience of Clarence. He also said this game, with all bursts of offense from both teams, would be a game of who made the last run.
The game was an offensive show, with both teams exchanging leads throughout the game.
Clarence led at the end of the first quarter, but the highlight of the session came from Falcons senior Jaeger Martino. He drove to the hoop and threw down a vicious slam-dunk over a Devil's defender to give NW a 12-11 lead.
However, Clarence would end the quarter with a 7-0 run and lead 18-12.
The second quarter is where the game came to a stalemate, as both offenses slowed down. Wheatfield was down 10 at one point, but won the quarter 14-13. The Falcons trailed 31-26 at halftime.
In the third quarter, the Falcons offense was unleashed.
James McVay and Martino scored 5 straight points off offensive rebounds, and Davon Ware heated up, hitting two 3-pointers. After a Jalen Bradberry 3, Clarence called a timeout. The Falcons were on a 14-4 run.
Clarence's Joe Olivieri drove to the hoop for an and-one play to stop the run. Joe Szadek hit his second 3-pointer of the game to tie it at 43, but the Falcons led at the end of the quarter, doubling their amount of points, 52-48.
In the fourth quarter, the roles were reversed. Clarence said not so fast, and countered the Falcons' big third quarter.
Szadek hit his third 3-pointer of the game to cap a 7-0 Devils run and give his team the lead at 55-52.
Once the Red Devils had the lead, they didn't look back. Every time the Falcons crept close, River Reinhardt would step up, driving to the hoop for layups, and then capping his night with a 3-pointer. He finished with a team-high 14 points.
The Red Devils won the quarter 28-12 and came back to defeat the Falcons 76-64.
For Clarence, the team's fifth straight win advanced the Red Devils to the second round of the AA playoffs. Their next game will be at No. 1-seeded Jamestown High School at 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 24.
For the Falcons, the loss hurt. But O'Bryan said he is optimistic about his team's future.
"It could be real bright," he said. "I though Anthony Ruffino, the last 11 games, has been overall one of our best players. He rebounds, he's starting to score a little bit more, and he's trying to take a leadership role that he's still learning. ... But he's been so good for us and he's only a junior."
O'Bryan said the future could be bright - depending on how much they remember what Wednesdays' loss felt like, and how much the guys want to win.
Ruffino finished the night with 13 points, while Bradberry and Ware each chipped in 14.
O'Bryan said he was very proud of Martino and recognized his progress,
"He's come a long way from where I thought he was last year," O'Bryan said. "He's progressed each year just with his ability to do things with the basketball."
He said Martino would go on to play in college. O'Bryan also said Martino's heavy emotions after the game just showed how much it meant to him.
Eight of the 14 N-W players will return for next year, four of whom were starters in this game.
Six seniors will graduate the Wheatfield program this year, including Martino, Matt Gibson, Emilio Tripp, Noah Klettke, Philip Bassham and Peter Mulcahy.